Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Fall and the Call

(A Deacon Ordination sermon based on John 21:15-19 for Sunday, June 23, 2013)

“Fall and call go together” [Christopher Bamford, “The Gift of the Call,” Parabola, Fall 2004, in Philip Zaleski, ed., The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 4].

That’s why we don’t expect you to be perfect.

That’s why we do expect you to be you.

So what do we get in getting you? We get sinners, that’s what we get.

There’s no point in denying it or dancing around it; we’re ordaining sinners and installing sinners as deacons today.

The rest of us are sinners, too, so what we really have here are sinners ordaining sinners.

And that’s good news.

It’s good news because it means that we are all in this together; we are a bunch of sinners who have stumbled into the grace of God and who are by that grace trying to follow Jesus and trying to serve a broken world.

Simon Peter can serve as a role model for us. I can’t help but wonder if, as happy as he must have been to find that Jesus had been resurrected, he was also anxious about seeing Jesus again, given that the last time he has seen him it was just as he denied knowing his teacher and friend. Have you ever hurt someone but comforted yourself with the assumption that you would never have to see them again, only to have them turn up unexpectedly? That’s what happened to Peter.

I imagine Peter on the beach that morning, chewing on his piece of fish while hovering around the edge of the group, simultaneously trying to and trying not to catch Jesus’ eye. Then Jesus called his name: “Simon, son of John!” and Peter’s heart leapt into his throat while his stomach hit his feet. I see Peter walking slowly over to Jesus, perhaps bracing himself for a reprimand (he never forgot the time that Jesus called him “Satan”) or an absolution. But he got neither.

Instead, he got a three-fold question and commission; three times he heard “Do you love me?” and three times he heard “Feed my sheep.” And he spent the rest of his life loving Jesus and feeding his sheep.

You have not been called to be a deacon because you are perfect or because you are even particularly good. You have been called because you are a human being who has been saved by the grace of God and thus have the capability of loving Jesus and of feeding his sheep.

We need you to be who you are in all your broken gloriousness. It is as the songwriter Leonard Cohen put it:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Besides, when you heard your name, you responded. You will continue to hear your name called and you will continue to respond. I think it is good that now, when someone around here calls “Mike,” all three of us will look up [note: both deacons being ordained are named "Mike," as am I]. That is as it should be. We are all in this together. We are all servants together. We may not know which one of us they are calling so let’s just assume it is all three of us.

I said that we don’t expect you to be perfect—and I meant it. Still, there is one way in which we do expect you to be becoming perfect. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What does that mean? Kathleen Norris gets it right when she observes that “Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others” [Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead, 1998), p. 57]. It means growing in love so that you think of others before thinking of yourself and become willing to give yourself up for others.

Perhaps it is only when you fall down that you can appropriately look up; perhaps it is only when you know that you don’t deserve to hear his call that you are ready to hear his call; perhaps it is only when you know how imperfect you are that you are ready to be perfect.

We need you to be imperfect and perfect. We need you to help us to be aware of who we are and of who we are becoming. We need you to show us how to fall down and then to get up and keep on serving …

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Family with Two Fathers

(A sermon based on Luke 2:41-52 for Father's Day 2013)

I recently, on two separate occasions, gave our children the opportunity to express their opinion, now that they are adults, of what kind of father I have been to them. I did so with fear and trembling. Our son Joshua said, “Well, Sara and I are both reasonably well-adjusted and are doing what we think we are supposed to do. I’d say you did fine.” Our daughter Sara said, “You're the best. The absolute best. And I'll stick to that as long as you keep making your chicken wings.”

I took their insights to heart and I felt fine.

What I always wanted was what all decent parents want: for my children to discover who God made them to be and to spend their lives being that. I am grateful that they are doing that and that they recognize the truly finer things in life, too. And that they have a sense of humor.

After all, we parents believe that our children are a gift from God, that they are blessed by God with unique gifts, and that they can do great good with their lives.

Imagine, then, how Joseph must have felt.

After all, he had been told—and by an angel, no less—that the son that his wife Mary would bear was “conceived of the Holy Spirit” and that he would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20). Talk about high expectations! What a privilege it was to get to serve as the earthly father to such a child!

But then there had been that odd old man named Simeon who, on the day Mary and he had taken little Jesus to have him dedicated at the Temple, had said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). He hadn’t liked that part about a sword piercing his wife’s soul. He was a father, not a mother, but he knew mothers well enough to know that their soul got pierced when something bad happened to their child.

Joseph had to wonder how much pain Jesus would have to bear on the way to fulfilling his purpose in life. How much pain would Mary and he have to bear as Jesus found his way?

None of the rest of us has had an angel tell us how special our child is (at least I don’t think so) or have had someone prophesy what kind of pain our child’s life would bring us—but all of us fathers do share some of this experience in common with Joseph. We believe that our children are special, too. And we know that whatever pain they experience in growing up and in being grown is pain that we will feel, too.

The story in today’s text is the only story in the Bible about Jesus’ childhood; perhaps it is indicative of the kinds of experiences that Mary and Joseph had with their son throughout his growing up years. Every child has to come to terms with who she or he is and has to find a way to be who she or he is meant to be; Jesus was no exception and perhaps he had a heightened experience with such development. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine the young Jesus being precocious, inquisitive, and adventurous.

Sooner or later, your child’s search will lead him away from you and when it does, it’s scary and it’s upsetting. And so it was that after his family’s annual pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, one day into the journey back home—a journey that would have involved a large party of family and friends traveling together—Joseph and Mary realized that Jesus was missing. When they finally found him after three days of searching—it’s not hard to imagine how frantic they would have been—they located him conversing with the teachers.

Mary said to him, “What’s the matter with you? How could you do this to us? We’ve been worried sick about you!” We’re not told what Joseph said but it was probably something like, “Yeah, listen to your mother!”

That’s when Jesus said it. I don’t know that he had never said it before, but I have a feeling this was the first time. “Did you not know that I must involve myself in my Father’s affairs?” So there it was: there were two fathers in the house—the earthly father Joseph and the heavenly Father God—and the heavenly Father had greater claim on Jesus and on his life than did his earthly father. And the twelve-year-old Jesus was coming to realize it.

Jesus didn’t say what so many young folks at some point say, namely, “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want!” (or something like that). Instead he said, “It’s the life that my heavenly Father has for me that I must live.”

Still, Jesus went home and was obedient to his parents. But we all know that things were never the same between Joseph and him because now they both knew that Jesus’ life was not about the carpenter’s shop but was about whatever calling the heavenly Father had placed on his life, a calling that would be challenging, difficult, and painful.

Our homes have two fathers, too, and the claims of the heavenly Father on our children are more important and more enduring than our claims. That can be hard on us. But it can also be liberating for all of us. Make no mistake about it, though—if our children believe that the path down which God calls them is difficult and even dangerous, it is our place to affirm and to support them.

It appears that Joseph did not live to see the final outcome of Jesus’ life; we never see him again after this incident and we assume that he died before Jesus began his public ministry. But he saw him on his way.

Let’s see our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren on their way. They need to be about their heavenly Father’s business, too …

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Open Doors, Open Lives

(A Communion meditation based on Genesis 18:1-14 for Sunday, June 9, 2013)

So far as Abraham could tell, they were just three men who happened by, but he still fell all over himself being hospitable to them. He asked them in, encouraged them to put their feet up, and, along with Sarah, fed them a great meal. He welcomed them into his home, to his table, and into his life. As a result, Abraham was included in a conversation that made quite a difference in his life for in that conversation Abraham was told that at that same time the next year Sarah would give birth to a son. After much waiting and hoping, there would be a son of Sarah and Abraham; his name would be Isaac. So Abraham gave to his guests but he also received from them.

And in some mysterious way, the Lord God was present in the meal outside Abraham and Sarah’s tent.

Many years later there lived in the town of Jericho another “son of Abraham” whose name was Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a reject, a small man made even smaller in the eyes of his neighbors by his collusion with the hated Romans in their taxation system. He didn’t know who Jesus was but he wanted to find out and so he ran ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree—for the Lord he wanted to see. When Jesus walked by he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Then, we are told, “he hurried down and was happy to welcome him” (Luke 19:5-6). The good religious folks fussed because Jesus was going to eat with a sinner but that sinner started promising to make right the wrong he had done and to give to people in need. And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house!” (Luke 19:9).

And in some mysterious way, the Lord God was present at that meal at Zacchaeus’s house.

A few years later, a Christian leader encouraged his readers, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). He most likely had the story of Abraham’s visitors in mind, but his point is well made, especially when we understand that the word “angel” means “messenger”; who knows what the Lord might have to say to us through people that come to us and that we receive, even if we don’t know who they are or why they are there.

Abraham didn’t know that his visitors represented the Lord—but they did. Zacchaeus didn’t know that he was going to host the Savior—but he was. Neither knew that their lives were about to change drastically—but they were.

Now, hundreds of years later, here we are about to gather around the Table. And in some mysterious way, the Lord God is present at this meal. The Lord may just have something life-changing to say to us. Are we listening? The Lord may just want to bring salvation—freedom from what narrows and lessens us, from what causes us to lose ourselves, and from what causes us to think and act destructively toward other people—to our house. Are we willing—and even anxious—to receive it?

There are Christian traditions in which the sanctuary contains more than one altar. In those churches, there is one High Altar; it is the altar on which the Lord’s Supper is served. It makes sense for that altar to be called the “high” one, given that Jesus is Lord and that his sacrifice is central to our faith.

But if only look “high” for the Lord, we will miss him.

Someone once asked a rabbi why so few people see the Lord to which the rabbi replied, “Because they don’t look low enough.”

Or, as the Lord put it, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35). When do we welcome and minister to Jesus in those ways? “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Somehow, in this meal, the Lord is present.

Somehow, in the stranger, the hungry one, the impoverished one, the sick one, and the imprisoned one, the Lord is present.

The question is whether we will open the door and open our lives and let them in …